Monday, February 17, 2014

The Monuments Men (**)

Directed by George Clooney

George Clooney's directorial efforts come pre-packaged with ideas and statements, with thought-provoking ideals meant to help the human race improve. Perhaps the one exception is his first film, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, but that was from a Charlie Kaufman screenplay and was so preoccupied with the thin line between sexual deviancy and obsessive violence that Clooney's direction had a little bit of trouble keeping up. Good Night, and Good Luck earned him a Best Director nomination and was probably the closest he ever came to truly embodying his idealistic morales, but most of the power in that film came from the brilliant, all-consuming performance from David Strathairn who played Edward Murrow with the perfect balance of celebrity mimicry and metaphor mouthpiece. He's only really made one bad film, and that was 2011's Ides of March which seemed a lot more outraged about political corruption than its audience did. And yet, his films never seem to feel as important as it seems he wants them to be. The Monuments Men is another installment in that tradition.

History seems to be Clooney's obsession - both world history and cinematic. Not only do his films usually deal with true stories from the past, but they're usually made with strong nods to the formal style of the filmmakers from the past as well. A film like The Monuments Men would've seemed like a lot better fit in the 1980's or 90's, kind of in the same way that The Ides of March would have been more shocking in the 1940's. Like Ben Stiller's Walter Mitty which was released just a couple months before, Monuments Men doesn't seem to care that audiences have changed, that our affection for sentimentality has diminished and that irony is reigning supreme. You have to be less serious about taking yourself seriously. But Clooney's latest film takes place during the Second World War, and no sub-genre of film takes itself more seriously than WWII movies. As per usual, Clooney is able to collect an impressive cast of actors, but it always ends up seeming as though these actors probably had a lot more fun hobnobbing while making the film then I am ultimately having watching the finished project.

The actual Monuments Men of the title speaks of the special task force created during the second half of World War II. Frank Stokes (Clooney), an art professor from New York City, convinced President Roosevelt to allow him and fellow art professionals/enthusiasts go behind enemy lines to save precious art pieces being pilfered by the Nazi's. Stokes' mission is immediately questioned and met with skepticism from all ends. Is it really worth not only risking lives, but other ongoing military operations, to save some art? Stokes believes that it is, and he gets together a group of men who feel likewise. There is James Granger (Matt Damon), a museum director and curator who scoffs at the idea of seeing Stokes go through basic training at his advanced age; then there is the architect, Richard Campbell (Bill Murray) from Chicago, sculpter Walter Garfield (John Goodman), art connoisseur Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban) and Lt. Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin), a French officer who's seeing his first military action as part of this team. Their European contact and fellow teammate is disgraced Lieutenant Don Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville) who's still attempting to recover from a bout with alcoholism which nearly ended his military career; and along the way they pick up the young Sam Epstein (Dimitri Leonidas) who proves useful since he speaks fluent German.

In Nazi-occupied Paris, an art curator named Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett) must sit back while S.S. officers begin pillaging her gallery. In particular, Officer Viktor Stahl (Justus von Dohnanyi) guides various high-ranking Nazi officials through the cherished artwork. When Paris is liberated by the Allied Forces, Stahl helps the Nazis steal Claire's entire collection. When Claire is incorrectly imprisoned for conspiring with the Nazis to help the theft of her gallery, the one salvation is James Granger, who arrives to offer Claire a chance to be freed in exchange for helping the Monuments Men find where the stolen art has been taken. While James is in Paris trying to find information from Claire, the rest of the group is in Germany trying to hunt down where the stolen art may be. During their missions, they encounter serious wartime danger. Though the war is nearly over, the threats of being killed in action still hang in the air, especially on German soil. In their missions, they realize the true dangers of being a real military soldier and the true price of preserving the culture of art.

The Monuments Men is a fascinating story, a titillating sidebar during a war that was filled with dramatic narratives and complex characters. The film is based on a book by Robert Edsel, and the arc of the story strikes me as something more suited to book form. With the amount of films made about World War II, it's hard to find the time and space to find any real magnetism for something like Monuments Men; it seems tedious next to something like Saving Private Ryan or Seven Beauties. Perhaps it's unorthodox storyline - a group of men who believe that preserving culture is above even their own safety - is enough to get you by, but Clooney doesn't seem to think so. The director isn't satisfied to just have you watch the Monuments Men save all these art pieces, but he really wants you to agree with them to. The film draws a line in the sand, ignores withstanding complications and asks you to believe that lives should be risked and military procedures compromised to save famous paintings and sculptures without reservation. I, for one, would feel more comfortable enjoying this story of jolly art lovers if I wasn't being asked to sign on the dotted line.

I don't mean to sound self-righteous while commenting on a film's own self-righteousness, and I realize that Monuments Men is a well-intentioned film that is meant only to get audiences to become informed about a group of principled men who are in none of the history books. And I do appreciate the care and sweetness with which Clooney and his co-screenwriter/creative partner Grant Heslov choose to show these men. Clooney does well to cast actors so well-versed in both humor and drama - like Goodman, Murray, Dujardin and Balaban - so when the films inevitable shifts in tone arrive it seems a whole lot less jarring. But this film is apparently so loosely based on the actual events that almost all of the names had to be changed, so how important are these guys to Clooney and Heslov anyway? In a formal sense, Clooney knows the value of visual storytelling, and is competent enough to know that most shots in a movie must be interesting, even if the action inside of them isn't. But would any filmmaker without Clooney's fame and reputation be able to continue to make films that provide so little in spark and so much in petition-pushing earnestness?

Clooney's main filmmaking value is his ability to put together a great cast. Even Ides of March was able to come up with a murderer's row of star-power and acting prestige. The cast is loose here - they know the stakes aren't high and almost none of them perform as though the weight of the story is on their shoulders. I say 'almost' because the film's heavier moments rely on Cate Blanchett, an already accomplished actress who has put herself amongst the top of her class within the last year or so. Her performance within Monuments Men is far from her best, but a continuing reminder of the top-level professionalism she brings to each role and her virtuoso abilities with accents and exoticism. As for the actual Monuments Men themselves, they're mostly affable and reactionary. Clooney and Damon - perhaps the two best movie stars we have today -  lead the cast by allowing everyone else to grab the spotlight. There are no highlighted Oscar clip-type scenes for the two megastars and that seems by design. It may be the only time that the two actors have been in a film together and have been asked to do less.

When Monuments Men was pushed from a loaded Fall schedule to a lonely February opening (not so lonely after all, it got pummeled by The Lego Movie at the box office), many saw it as an indictment, a confirmation of the film's inability to pack a real punch amongst the other awards contenders. That's probably true, but I'm not sure that this film should have ever really been considered for that position. I'm sure the makers of Walter Mitty wished they could have a re-do on their release date as well. Clooney as a director is much less cool and borders on elitist. It would almost be better if his film's were horrifically bad, because at least they'd inspire impassioned reactions. Instead, all his movies, with the exception of Good Night, and Good Luck inhabit a sort of cinematic limbo in which it's hard not to like, but even hard to remember ten minutes later. Clooney is no less talented behind the camera than his buddy Ben Affleck, yet his films don't connect on a guttural level nearly as often. I still think Clooney can make a very good film if given the right pieces to work with, but I'd like to see him become less preoccupied with sending a message and more interested in telling a story.

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